On Air: Our friends in the North

A new Manchester-based comedy drama is being hailed as This Life for thirtysomethings.
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If you want to stay on the right side of Christine Langan, don't, whatever you do, refer to her latest project, ITV's new Sunday night series Cold Feet, as a sitcom.

"It really gets my goat," groans the show's producer. "This is comedy drama. It's a longer format, for a start. It's not all about one-liners and quick laughs. It's got emotional depth. And it looks different. The whole point was to move away from a tired and dreary formula."

Maybe, but Cold Feet extracts much humour and emotion from a situation instantly recognisable to anyone who has recently hit the wrong side of 30.

The plot flows from the loves and lives of a group of friends living in Manchester as they grapple with relationships at work, at home and in the bedroom, and the realisation that though they are growing older, nothing in life appears to get any simpler.

Cold Feet is British TV's long-awaited answer to the hit American television series, Thirtysomething. More than 10 years on, Granada Television has finally produced a modern show that mines the rich seam of a generation that is as confused as it is liberated by increased choice and freedom, and that caters for an audience which has not, traditionally, watched very much ITV.

"It's been an struggle to get something like this into a prime-time slot," says Andy Harries, executive producer and head of comedy at Granada, which made the show for ITV. Part one of Cold Feet is going out head to head with the third episode of BBC 1's Vanity Fair on Sunday night (15 November). "There's a lot riding on it, but I'm confident we've got a really good shot," says Harries.

Life for today's late twenty- and thirtysomethings has been terribly neglected by TV, he believes. But as atypical as the subject matter, is the format. Tired by the staleness of many British sitcoms, Harries is championing a fresh approach - "comedy drama". That is, drama that has depth, but also balances the comic and the dramatic, over an hour of screen time.

"Sitcoms have run out of steam. They've become highly unfashionable, with only one or two exceptions, and few young writers want to go into them," he explains.

"Comedy drama relies on tight structure and a careful balance between the different elements, which lends the end result far more emotional weight.

"The best comedy is all about extremes. You should feel uncomfortable. It's not enough to make people laugh, pure and simple. It means far more if laughter comes from an emotional journey - if it's more than a belly laugh."

Cold Feet is a rich mix of wry observations on relationships, men's and women's insecurities and expectations of each other, and sex, as well as heavier issues which include impotence, adultery, ageing and the death of a parent.

In episode one, Adam and Rachel (played by James Nesbitt and Helen Baxendale) have been together a year and are waging a territorial battle, with both wanting to move in together, but also to stay in their respective homes.

Pete and Jenny (John Thomson and Fay Ripley) are poles apart as they await the imminent birth of their first child - while he's obsessed with what's happening to her body, she loathes it. Meanwhile, David and Karen (Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris) bicker over their son's progress at nursery school.

"The real challenge was to overcome the traditional view that many of the issues we cover - jealousy, guilt, money, sexual problems, parental death - are ordinary issues, hardy perennials and, as such, not interesting enough for drama," says Langan. "Yet anything that makes planning your life difficult becomes worth looking at. The experiences of post-baby- boomers are different. We may not have had a war to grow up with, but we grew up through the shattering effects of punk, financial boom, Thatcherism and bust."

Cold Feet's writer, Mike Bullen, agrees. "These are important issues for me and everyone else I know in their thirties," he says. "Traditionally, ITV has steered clear of them - perhaps because of the fact that commissioning editors were always older, and the fear that they'd not get an audience broader than the age of the characters. But these issues appeal to young and old audiences alike - my mother loves it."

Bullen is a relative newcomer to TV drama, a former presenter and producer for the BBC World Service. He sent Harries his first TV script on spec just four years ago. Bullen's calling-card, The Perfect Match, was about a man who proposes to his girlfriend at the Cup Final with the aid of the giant scoreboard. Harries loved it.

"The writing was impressive - cleverly constructed dialogue, very funny, well observed," he says. "Mike obviously had a handle on exactly how people his age, in their early thirties, thought, and what amused them. It was fantastic to discover a writer who was fresh and new and available - to us."

Bullen's second project was the pilot for Cold Feet first broadcast in March 1997. "What interested me was looking at a relationship from the male and female point of view to explore how the two differ," he explains. It was the germ of an idea that spun into the story of Rachel and Adam, who meet by chance in a supermarket car park. In an attempt to lure her away from her lover, Adam serenades her in the nude with a rose dangling precariously between his buttocks.

"When I wrote the pilot, I was in my early thirties, quite similar to the Adam character, in fact - although I never stuck a rose up my bottom," Bullen insists. "By the time I'd written the series, I'd married and had my first child. The writing spills over from my own life and those of my friends and the rest is made up. Everyone involved is around the same age - we saw it as a programme for us."

Initial prospects for Cold Feet at pilot stage, however, looked bleak. ITV didn't really seem to know what to do with it, Harries admits. "Originally scheduled at 9pm, it was re-scheduled to 8pm, then 10pm, although it eventually went out 40 minutes later as the Grand Prix overran." It got an audience of just 4.5 million - a potential disaster, he says. However, it went on to win a host of TV awards, including a silver and the gold for best programme at the prestigious Montreux television festival.

"Had it not won the Golden Rose, I doubt it would have survived," says Harries. But that, along with the arrival of David Liddiment as director of programmes for ITV, renewed commitment to the idea that Bullen subsequently developed.

The end result is quite stylised, although it is not as self-conscious as Ally McBeal. Slick editing maintains a pacy momentum, with characters in different scenes regularly finishing each other's anecdotes, freeze frames, flashbacks and split screens. The aim was to convey the pace of Nineties urban living, Langan explains.

"Events happen rapidly, at times disjointedly. But it's not style for style's sake," she insists. "As with the blend of comedy and drama - later episodes get quite heavy at times, it's there because life's like that."

`Cold Feet' goes out on ITV on 15 November at 9.30pm